Interview: Pete Wylie of The Mighty Wah!

pete-wylie

I love making records but I hate the music business

Pete Wylie wrote and sang one of my top 3 singles of all time – ‘The Story Of The Blues, Part One’ – so when I heard that he was about to release his first studio album for 16 years, and embark on a national tour, you might say that I was just a bit excited. When I then got the opportunity to interview him, I leapt at the chance!

Route 61, or ‘The Blues Highway,’ between New Orleans and Chicago, is the stretch of road made famous, from the 1920’s onwards, by black musicians travelling from the cotton fields of the deep south, to the Windy City’ in the north, singing the blues, and searching for fame and fortune. On this side of the pond, the East Lancs Road, between Manchester and Liverpool, connects the two cities that were at the core of the new wave and indie music scenes. Manchester may have had the likes of Joy Division and The Smiths, but Liverpool matched that with The Crucial Three…….

“You what?” I hear you cry!

Well, OK, The Crucial Three were only together for a couple of months in the summer of 1977, and didn’t exactly set the world alight. But when three of these lads (there were four of them in total, would you believe!) went their separate ways, they formed three bands that produced music known the world over – Ian McCulloch with Echo And The Bunnymen, Julian Cope with The Teardrop Explodes and Pete Wylie with Wah!

Peter James Wylie is now 58 years old, but still sounds as enthusiastic about his new lease of life as I imagine he was when he embarked on his musical odyssey in the late 1970’s. He has formed several bands over the years, since ’The Story Of The Blues, Part One’ was released in 1982 under the name of Wah!, and reached No.3 in the charts. Although he came close with some excellent tracks, such as ‘Comeback’ in 1984 and ‘Sinful’ two years later, none ever reached the same level.

When a band splits up, and someone from that band subsequently forms a new one, it can be hard to not keep referring to their previous project…”you know, he used to be in….” I imagine that this might become a bit tedious for the new band, but Pete found an unusual and clever way to avoid this – every new band still had ‘Wah!’ in the title. So far, there have been six incarnations – Wah!, Wah! Heat, Shambeko! Say Wah!, JF Wah!, The Mighty Wah! and Wah! The Mongrel.

However, the new line-up goes back to the name that was, perhaps, the best known – ‘The Mighty Wah! Despite the limited commercial success he has achieved, his songs were always very stylish, and to the ears of the converted, not ‘sinful’ at all, but quite beautiful. Many may have been put off by the overtly left wing politics that is the subject of a lot of his material, but again, some find this part of the attraction.

Although he is now, and I quote, “skint,” it is a reflection of Pete’s character, that he always strives for, and believes, that his music is top quality. Like he did back in the early days, he wants his latest incarnation of Wah! “to be the best band, ever.”

And here, perhaps, is one of the main reasons why Pete Wylie has not achieved the same level of fame and commercial success as some of his contemporaries. Whereas others may be prepared to compromise ideals, perhaps change the way they do things if they are advised, or told, to do so, Pete does things his way, and his way only.

Is he too stubborn, or over confident in his ability, to enable him to achieve what he believes to be perfection? Or is he admirably sticking to his principles, not changing course if he can’t reach where he wants to go by going down his own route, and not coy toying to record companies who think they know better?

From the long conversation I had with him, my view, for what it’s worth, is that Pete Wylie is a man of principle, and will not sell himself short just to make a dollar. The quality of his product is sacrosanct – it will be the best song ever, or none of us will get to hear it.

“I’ve had loads of requests to go on TV with this new album, but I’ve turned them all down. They’ll be great, and we’ll look great, but you need that time on the road to be the best.” I guess the publicity guys can have day or two off for now then….

In January 2013, a respected national newspaper published an article about one of Wylie’s best known tracks, ‘Come Back’, which reached number 20 in the charts in 1984. Whilst praising him and the song one minute, the journalist rips them both to shreds the next. However, at one point, though strangely not at the end of the article, he concludes that Wylie was a character who “…felt destined to be a star, and who had imagined the whole process from start to finish, with the possible exception of the bits in which he knuckled down and did what aspirant stars have to do: kissing label arses; doing the meet-and-greets; being a good boy….” [The Guardian, 24 Jan. 2013]

It’s pretty clear that he still feels the same way. “I love making records but I hate the music business,” Pete told me. So he must have enjoyed getting back into the studio after so long? “It was triple weird, because I did it all in the house. My last experience [of recording] was a nightmare, but Kate [his wife] told me that I really had to do what I was supposed to do. But even the night before we began to do it, I was saying ‘I don’t want to do it’. It’s not about making the record that, it’s about getting back into the circus.”

Recording at home was made necessary due to the low budget he had available. However, even this was only made possible partly due to a little help from his friends. The son of a friend of a friend had done a course on sound engineering and needed job, and needed to be kept on the straight and narrow, so as money was tight, this seemed a good chance to help a mate’s son, lower the unemployment figures, and get himself recording again. Thankfully, another friend, Edwyn Collins, leant him a decent mic, “otherwise I was going to be singing into a can with two bits of string!”

Nobody who has heard Pete Wylie’s music, or read anything about him, can have failed notice which side of the political divide he falls on. However, if, for some reason, you have any doubt, the title of one of his songs written in 2010, three years before the event, will make it pretty clear – “The Day Margaret Thatcher Dies”.

Much less clear, and the source of much conjecture, is the meaning behind the title of my favourite track from the 1986 album ‘Sinful’, a song called 4-11-44. It’s one of the few love songs that Wylie had written before meeting and marrying Kate a year and a half ago. “I’ve written plenty of songs with ‘I love you’ in them, followed by a question mark. But now, I want to write them with an exclamation mark!” he says…..ahhhhh!

Very sweet, Pete, but you’re not getting away with it that easily! “I’ve never told anyone what the numbers 4-11-44 mean. I’ve told a lot of people lies, but never the truth. Gary Davies on Radio One once had a competition about it, and he said ‘and Pete’ll tell you the answer’…..and I said, ‘No I won’t!’”

It seemed this topic was going nowhere, but after I told Pete what I’d discovered online about it, he said I was getting close. So close, in fact, that he finally said he would let me be the first person he’d ever told the truth to…….providing I didn’t tell anyone! So, was he telling the truth this time? I’d like to think so. So, sorry, but my tongue is very definitely tied on that one!

Thankfully, the song is on the set list for the forthcoming tour, as is it’s equivalent – ‘The Whole of My Heart’ – from the new album. “The whole album is a bit different to what I’ve done before,” Pete tells me, “more ‘soul-ey’, more grown up, more mature, because I am.”

“And are you really more grown up now, Pete?” I joke with him. “Oh yeah…..well, not mature like, but more grown up!”

And long may he remain so!

Talking to one of your erstwhile heroes can be disappointing, I imagine, but it was the complete opposite for me, talking to this complex, clever and still very creative and eloquent man. His mind is still as sharp as ever, even perhaps spotting lines to be used in new songs as we spoke about old ones. “Where’s Piranhaville?” (from ‘Train to Piranhaville’), I asked him, expecting that he might say London, or given his Scouse roots, Manchester. However, it was nothing so straight forward.

“It’s everywhere,” he said. “Here’s one for you to quote me on – it’s the most dangerous place you can go, where you feel safest.”

Pete Wylie’s new album – ‘Pete Sounds!’ – is released on 4th November, and ‘Pete Wylie and The Mighty Wah!’ set off on an eight date national tour two days earlier in Hull. I for one can’t wait to see them, when they come to Middlesborough, on 17th November!

Geoff Scott

Geoff Scott

I have a wide-ranging taste in music - my favourite band of all time is New Order, but it is Blues that I listen to most these days. I was a town planner with Newcastle City Council for nearly 25 years, but took early retirement on health grounds in 2013. My interests other than music include photography and most sports - I am a season card holder at Sunderland AFC and follow Durham County Cricket Club.
Geoff Scott

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[…] a bit different to the original, but as Pete told me when I interviewed him last month (click HERE to read), he wants to play the tracks with the energy they have now, and to enjoy it like he did […]

 

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